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Shorter Reviews Subjective Criticism, by David Bleich; 309 pp. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, $16.00. How can a book of literary theory make me want to flee to the quantitative and physical sciences, from whose concrete dungeons I escaped so many professional years ago? To suggest that my judgment of it may be wholly explained by my personal biography is to evoke the spirit of Bleich's program to reconstitute literary criticism into what he calls "subjective criticism." Confusion and error, both interesting and uninteresting, riddle it. The early chapters introduce Bleich's theory, beginning with the "subjective paradigm," a belief that reality is defined subjectively, and with its opposite, the "objective paradigm," a "maladaptive" belief made up of religion and older science (the latter having been infected by the presumption of absolute truth in religion). Supporting the newer paradigm with discussions of dream interpretation , language theory, pedagogy, and recent critical trends, Bleich is led to praise one critic who reforms from saying "This is how Pinter is" to "This is how I see his work" (p. 128). The book's soul is its pedagogical program derived from ten years of collecting "response statements" from students (who were often studying the the ory that their responses illustrate and verify). The response statement is "a symbolic presentation of self, a contribution to a pedagogical community, and an articulation of that part of our reading experience we think we can negotiate into knowledge" (p. 167). These student essays, cited in full and examined in detail, frequently take on a rigid organization: paragraphs that begin with an enjoyed incident from the literary work proceed with some associated, personal recollection (praised, if painful, as "sincere"), and conclude with a generalized formal observation about the work. Personal preoccupations transform into criticism by way of the degree of "identification" with literary characters or authors: Mr. P's fear of getting a B in the course enables him to interpret Prufrock 's fear of being misunderstood; Mrs. A recognizes a victim/victimizer opposition in Kafka through her analysis of hostile treatment by her parents, and so on. Through such examples Bleich shows subjectivity operating in literary meaning, taste, and one's sense of an author. This experimental teaching is to me the interesting confusion or error. Daring a radical therapy for fear of "affective fallacy," Bleich shows how to achieve sophisticated literary analysis by being resolutely and thoughtfully affective. Checks against interpretive anarchy are included: communities of responsible readers (Fish's idea watered down); the rejection of the merely "clinical" value 114 Shorter Reviews115 of totally reader-oriented response or solipsism (as in a reader for whom More's "Utopus" sounds like "octopus"); the hard work of the method for the student, and its uncoached naturalness. (Delusions intrude when he finds his own words parroted in one response, but he takes this to be "more authentic than compliant "—p. 210). The theory is uninteresting, especially its grounding in a misreading of Thomas Kuhn, reverentially and frequently cited. Bleich reads into Kuhn a supposed isomorphism between the history of science and the history of taste, trivializing both. In point of fact, the easy, undergraduate relativism of Bleich's theory is contradicted by essential but ignored ideas of Kuhn, who rejects a simplistic dichotomy between objectivity and subjectivity, warns against attributing to personal biography all scientific progress, and explicitly respects "concrete achievements," corrigible theory, and "the test of time." Consider the following nested confusions: "the greatness of Shakespeare ... is ... in principle , as ephemeral as the absolute truth of Newton's laws of motion" (p. 165). But Newton's law still works (as any student of high school physics can show); it is no more "ephemeral" than is a rough description of France's shape as "hexagonal ." Bleich defines "objective paradigm" spectacularly as the belief that "all people perceive things in the same way" (p. 295). Relevant villains are trotted out one by one: New Critics, logical positivists, behaviorists, science before modern physics, religion, quantification, the "idea of progress," definers of genres and periods, prescribers of "great books" (incredibly linked to the practice of censorship), and traditional university education . Most teachers, we are told, believe that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 114-115
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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